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Project Wacanta Ognaka -- Caring Hearts for Oglala

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Release date: 
August 24, 1999
Release Number: 

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- The Crisis Counseling Program on the Pine Ridge Reservation has been successful due to the combined efforts of federal, state, tribal and volunteer agencies working together for the benefit of the community.

The rumbling old woman, her gray shawl whipping with the wind, rolled over the tiny town of Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation, gray hair flowing wildly. With her hands she ripped roofs from houses and lifted entire trailers, flicking them like matchsticks.

The tornadoes and storms that tore through parts of the Pine Ridge Reservation in early June were described by Lakota elders as an angry old woman littering the prairie with belongings and debris. She left one man dead and injured many others. She stole homes from many families. But much of the damage cannot so easily be seen.

The tornadoes also caused emotional and spiritual pain. To deal with that emotional damage the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has funded the Crisis Counseling Program. In the Lakota language they call it Project Wacanta Ognaka, loosely translated as "caring hearts."

...a seven-year-old-girl walks through Oglala's community, a backpack on her tiny shoulders. It is filled with her only belongings spared by the tornado. She and her backpack are never separated now. She refuses to lose anything to the next storm...

Caring hearts were just what were needed. But the situation was not that simple, according to Lisa Weldy, a human services officer with FEMA. Emotional and spiritual healing require a native cure. "The program had to be done in a way that addressed the cultural needs of the survivors," she said.

Wacanta Ognaka trains "caring hearts" from the community as outreach workers and then sends them back out into the community to visit with survivors. There they listen, giving people the opportunity to talk about their experiences and their pain. The most important part of the program is that the outreach workers either speak Lakota or are accompanied by a translator, and traditional Lakota healing techniques and ceremonies are being used.

Marla Bull Bear, executive director of the Native American Advocacy Project, manages Wacanta Ognaka. She is from the neighboring Rosebud Reservation and has in-laws from Kyle, part of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Bull Bear says the program would not be successful if it didn't address the specific needs of the Lakota. "We're taking Western therapies and using them in a way so that they make sense culturally."

The reservation is home to people of many faiths. Bull Bear says each person is dealt with uniquely, according to his or her own faith.

Wacanta Ognaka is unique because it uses the traditional Lakota approach to healing. All four parts of a person are considered-physical, emotional, social and spiritual. "You simply can't disconnect anyone from one of the four areas," Bull Bear said.

Sweat ceremonies have always been used by the Lakota to heal. Bull Bear says it is because the sweats don't ignore any of the four areas. Sweats are done in a social setting where people share experiences, physically renew energy and strength, emotionally relaxing and finally, nurturing the spirit.

Counselors plan to use the Winter Count, a Lakota tradition that memorializes an important event or death. As part of the memorial, the winter count tells the story of an event through pictures. Children in the community will draw the pictures, retelling their story of the storm. All the picture-stories will be placed together in a mural. The idea is to help children talk about their experiences with the storm.

Bull Bear also speaks of the healing power of Lakota humor. One elder told the story of how he held on in the middle of the storm's gusts and watched the roof being ripped from over his head. When the winds died down, the only thing that was left in the...

Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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